- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2003

RELIGION IN AMERICAN LIFE: A SHORT HISTORY
By Jon Butler, Grant Wacker and Randall Balmer
Oxford University Press, $35, 525 pages
REVIEWED BY LARRY WITHAM


Every generation of American religious adherents and spiritual seekers believes it lives in unprecedented times. A brisk read of "Religion in American Life" will demand second thoughts.
This story of American religious diversity spans from 1492 to 2001. It stretches from the day Franciscans, Anglicans and Puritans met the Indians to our bewildering era of moderate and radical Islamists.
The lesson? The more things change, the more they stay the same.
We thought the slogan "What Would Jesus Do?" began on teen bracelets just before the 2000 presidential campaign. It really began in the 1897 novel, "In His Steps," about how Jesus would run a business. Women in pulpits seem quintessentially modern. But now we read a quote about female preachers dominating colonial New York City. New Age spirituality and the Promise Keepers men's movement are not that new either, this history reminds us. There was widespread occultism among colonial churchgoers and "muscular Christianity" flourished in the 1800s.
To provide this perspective, "Religion in American Life" lays out three epochs of the national experience, beginning with European exploration up through the American Revolution. The second covers the yeasty 1800s, when the basic patterns of American religious life were set, and the third goes from roughly 1900 to the present.
In every era, it seems, there is a religious tension between orthodoxy and individual dissent, social action and piety, the intellect and the emotions, going back to roots and progress, North and South, urban and rural. Not everything stays the same, of course. America's first epoch was about developing as an independent society. The second was about civil war, industrialization, and world horizons. The third was the age of science, the middle class, Asian immigration, and new urban subcultures.
Novel to this book's concise and colorful narrative is a three-part authorship of leading historians. Jon Butler of Yale University, who knows the colonial period down to its religious tracts, numbers of church buildings and Indian tribes, covers the first epoch. For the second, Grant Wacker of Duke University parses out the major denominational trends of the 19th century, plus the rise of American reformist impulse, of which "health, poverty, alcohol and [foreign] missions took precedence." To tell us about Pentecostalism and America's welcome of gurus and Jesus people after the era of President Dwight Eisenhowerwho said our form of government needs religion "and I don't care what it is"is Randall Balmer, a PBS film maker and religion professor at Columbia University.
Those of us weaned on Sydney Ahlstrom's two-volume "A Religious History of the American People," Wilston Walker's dense "A History of the Christian Church," or the works of historian Henry Chadwick, will find something refreshingly new in this book. The three authors' distinct voices come through in their respective sections. And as one ends his century, and the next takes the baton as if a relay race, they overlap on some events and give them different emphases.
Of necessity, the narrative must get right to the point. It must weave together a nearly 500-year laundry list of events. The prose succeeds by taking on a journalistic verve that culls from only the best quotations for one event or another. To cover a period or theme, the authors tend to highlight a pivotal figure or two. What readers may lose in pure chronology they gain in these memorable stories. Between these human vignettes, the authors stand back to expound on major religious trends.
Here is where the book's clarity-through-brevity works well. In a page or two you can grasp the origin of Baptists in New England or the impact of slavery on churches. A moment of "aha" may arise when reading about the frontier split between the liberal Disciples of Christ and the conservative Churches of Christ, or the Pentecostal impact on Catholics. Each chapter ends by briefly excerpting a key document of the period. The book ends with a time line of 190 dates with key events.
This is not a Christian history, though that faith naturally predominates. The homage to minorities strikes a good balance, and is not the forced multiculturalism seen in some textbooks. The authors cover American Indian spirituality, women and dissenters across the centuries. The black church frequently has pride of place, and the stories of its modern urban leaderssuch as Father Divine, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm Xare told like magazine profiles.
Across our history, we walked a knife's edge over religion and politics. God showed up on everyone's side. Warnings of national travail abound; the end of the world was always at hand. Society was always about to be rent asunder by immigrants or outsiders, and the demise of the true faith was imminent.
This reviewer is not sure what a college student will bear reading today, but about 500 pages seems reasonable. For a weekend reader who feels behind on a half millennia of American faith adventures, they can be brought up to speed in a fortnight, and certainly before the Apocalypse.

Larry Witham covers religion for The Washington Times.


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